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June 20, 2006

Moved by the mountain: A conversation with Erik Reece, author of “Lost Mountain”

Editor’s note: This is the second and final part of Stephen George’s conversation with author Erik Reece. Part I was published last week.LEO: What about mainstream media?ER: I talked to a producer of a show I won’t name the other day in New York. He really wanted to do something on mountaintop removal. And he said, “But my senior producers are obsessed with ratings. They would rather see an hour-long show on ballroom dancing.” So I think that’s a big problem with the mainstream media. Journalists, whether it’s them or whether it’s their bosses, are not being allowed to do these kinds of stories. We’re to blame for a lot of this, because we’ll watch ballroom dancing, we’ll watch “Dancing with the Stars” or whatever it is. We’re just so entertainment- and celebrity-obsessed. That’s the other funny thing: One thing that I’ve spent a lot of time doing is get in touch with George Clooney or Ashley Judd. We need a celebrity to fight the cause. It’s ludicrous in a way that you need a celebrity, but in a way you do. If George Clooney optioned my book and made a movie, everybody would care about mountaintop removal! (laughing) LEO: Put a little dirt on his face —ER: Yeah. LEO: What a weird society.ER: Really. We’re very strange. It’s good for writers — gives us something to write about. Image and the economics of alternativesLEO: Let’s get back to alternatives. One of the things you mentioned was shame and embarrassment — you mentioned it earlier in the interview and also in the book. That only goes so far, particularly for an industry that really just doesn’t appear to give a shit.ER: It has to hit their bottom line. That’s when they’ll start caring. Or the press will have to be so bad that it becomes like an Abramoff thing. But you’re right, that only goes so far. I think the other thing I’m trying to say in the book and when I talk to people is, for one, this is the right thing to do. It’s ethically, morally right to save this region, to help its people. And the other thing I try to say is it’s spiritually the right thing to do. The Creation is God-given; we didn’t make it so we don’t have a right to destroy it. Whether you’re a creationist or an atheist — I never have problems with atheists. Atheists are always environmentalists for whatever reason. But there’s this real schism with mainstream Christians because there’s a sense of, you know, this world is a veil of tears but we’re going to go to a better world. You’ve got to get beyond that thinking and say to them, “Well, you know, what if you thought about this world as a spiritual place, and because it was God-given, we should be stewards of the land, and there’s Biblical precedence for this.” I think that’s a really powerful direction to go, because we are such a religious country, and because it is, I think, relatively easy to feel a spiritual connection to the natural world. You’re doing what Martin Luther King did, which was you’re appealing to people’s better selves, their better natures. I think that can be powerful. LEO: Let’s also go back to the idea of reforestation.ER: There’s something called the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, and it’s based on 20 years of studies. Basically what they found is, if you don’t compact the soil the way bulldozers do, and if you leave the overburden on the mine site and you leave it basically in mounded formations, you can actually take hardwood saplings and stick them right down into the rubble, even without topsoil. And because the rubble is so loose, there’s a lot of room for the roots to move. Studies done at the University of Kentucky Forestry Department up on a test site at the Starfire Mine found that these trees actually grow twice as fast as they do in a forest. This, to me, is really a goldmine if we think about it as such: If we could replace a dirty, finite resource with a clean, sustainable resource, you have jobs out into the future. If there was something like, I call it a New Deal for Appalachia for lack of a better term, where there was really money behind a real reforestation initiative, you could have a whole generation of foresters, kids educated in forestry who come back to the region to do forest management or to work in a wood products industry, local economy. That would really be something. I think that needs to be funded in part by the coal severance tax, which is ludicrously low, and a lot of it doesn’t go back to the region. I think something like that would do what everybody says they want to happen in Appalachia, which is to keep people home, keep families together. It would obviously clean the water, clean the air, provide better jobs.In the book I talk about the woman, Matari Langai, who won the Nobel Prize for planting trees in Kenya, the Greenbelt Movement. That’s a model case study for what could happen in Appalachia, where you take a poor region, give it back a resource, a resource that it manages; that’s a way to bring jobs to the region. When people bring up this jobs versus the environment argument, I try to say it doesn’t have to be jobs versus the environment, it can be jobs and the environment.LEO: What’s stopping this? ER: One thing is that the coal industry is just slow to change. When you ask them to do something different it just looks like more regulation to them. So they’ve always just turned the mine sites into concrete, driving the dozers over and over them, that’s what they do, that’s what they’re trained to do. The other thing is, these mounds don’t look very good for five years, until the trees get established. They just kinda look like a bunch of rubble sitting out there. Some property owners don’t want to see that. I think really what needs to happen is, I don’t know if I can work with the industry — I’m probably too alienated by it — but an environmentalist and the industry could work together and say, “Look, we’ll tout the fact that you’re replanting on an abandoned mine, or you can tout it that you’re doing this environmental good.” It could be sort of a win-win situation. But because the industry is so slow to change, and because the money — there’s no money behind it and there are no politicians behind it right now, it’s not happening.LEO: Speaking of politicians, I’ve heard Mickey McCoy say a few times that the people who are supposed to be protecting the land and people are actually protecting the coal industry. Do you agree with that?ER: Yeah, I do. I’ve never talked to anybody who filed a complaint against the industry and had a state regulator come out and have the regulator take their side. They’ll always say, “That crack in your foundation could’ve been caused by anything.” It’s really the burden of the landowner to prove — I mean, they should have to prove it — but they almost have to quit their jobs to prove it. There’s no help from the regulators to show that the companies are really causing the damage.Then we can just look at the fact that the people at Interior and at Labor, the people appointed to oversee mining, come from the industry. So it should be no surprise that they don’t want to regulate.LEO: So take mainstream media: When this stuff happens, it just seems so appalling that someone who was perhaps a lobbyist for the coal industry could become part of the regulatory agency. It seems so obvious what’s going on. ER: We obviously need laws against it. LEO: Right. It’s like banging your head against a wall. ER: It’s like this current legislation that after you leave Congress you can’t lobby for two years. It needs to be something like that. You shouldn’t be able to come from the industry and regulate it. You just shouldn’t. LEO: Then you talk about Jack Spadaro — when people try to stand up they get pushed out, intimidated …ER: Or they get transferred away from their families. I’ve documented a lot of cases where a mine owner who had given money to Republicans demanded that MSHA officials get transferred and they were. The corruption is just blatant. You can connect the dots. LEO: I’ve heard Caylor basically call you a liar, and consistently say you misrepresent facts. What do you say to that?ER: Everything in my book is fact-checked, and I’d be happy to show Bill Caylor exactly where all of my information comes from. The other thing that Bill Caylor always says about me is that I’m emotional, this idea that I’m a writer so I’m emotional, I’m trying to stir people up, I’m misrepresenting things.Back in “Rhetoric,” you have that Aristotelian triangle of logos, ethos and pathos; it’s part of writing that you do want to appeal on some level to people’s emotions, and of course I do that. But I only do it because these people really have had terrible things happen to them. Patsy Carter’s daughter was killed by a coal truck when she was getting ready for her high school graduation. That’s tragic. When you hear about that you get emotional. It’s always seemed like a strange thing for Caylor to keep saying. Anybody who’s seen this up close does show some emotion. Jack Spadaro said to me, “If we could fly everybody in the country over this in a plane, we’d outlaw it tomorrow.” But the problem that it is happening out of site, out of mind really makes this a hard fight to fight.LEO: It’s funny that you say that, what Caylor says about you being emotional, because I found the book not excessively emotional. I wasn’t expecting it to be, but I was expecting more anger, frankly, but it’s a really cool, level-headed —ER: I wasn’t writing as a stirred-up environmentalist, I was writing as a reporter. Towards the end, in the conclusion, I tried to give some philosophical framework for why this is happening. A spiritual issueReece had to leave the interview before we finished to attend a reading in Louisville. We picked up again a week later over the phone. Reece was at his home in Lexington. LEO: One of the most impressive     aspects of the book, in my mind, is your constant self-awareness. To a degree, we’re all sinners here, and we’re totally dependent — or at least substantially dependent — on fossil fuels. ER: A good way to avoid having an overly self-righteous tone is to keep reminding yourself and the reader of that. You’re not only talking to the reader but you’re talking to yourself, you’re reminding yourself of what you should be doing. If you make it “we’re all in this together,” it solves a lot of rhetorical problems, a lot of political problems. I think it’s something I learned, like a lot of things, from Berry: As hard as you try to separate yourself from the machine, you’re still a part of it on some level. Berry still drives a truck. That’s not to say don’t try to do anything. There’s a difference between throwing up your hands cynically and saying, Just because I can’t be totally pure doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do what I can.LEO: Obviously, America reducing its dependence on coal requires a huge paradigm change. Is it too big?ER: That’s the big question right now. Every day you pick up a newspaper there’s a story about global warming. Americans won’t do velvet revolutions — I think we need a crisis. And it may be a global warming crisis to bring about this shift. LEO: Global warming is such a slow process. Will there be, in your mind, a point of critical mass behind that, or will we slowly reach a point where there’s no turning back? ER: It very well could get to that point. My intuition now is that the hurricane seasons are going to be so bad that people can’t keep roofs on their houses and we’re going to wake up and say, Look, we can’t keep doing it this way. It depends a lot on who we elect in ’06 and ’08. A lot of it’s going to depend on taking the subsidies away from the fossil fuel industry and really getting serious about putting them into alternative energy. The thing you always hesitate to talk about is conservation. Americans don’t want to be told what to do. We have this sort of runaway individualism. What I try to do in the conclusion of the book is to say, What if we did this out of some inner conviction, not because Jimmy Carter told us to do it?LEO: In real terms, politically and socially, where does that begin? ER: It begins at all levels. It begins at the grassroots level with people pushing their electric companies to offer a green energy alternative like they do in Tennessee. It begins on a political level by shifting these massive subsidies. And it begins on a planning level, development-to-development, city-to-city, where city councils and developers really begin planning neighborhoods the way they plan them in Scandinavia, where you have incredible insulation, windows face the sun, things they’ve been doing in Europe for years. LEO: What do you say when someone says coal is a fact of life in Appalachia? ER: It’s a pretty brutal fact of life. It’s not a very hopeful fact. I realize that we’re not going to get rid of it tomorrow, but I would point to just the incredible poverty of both the region and the people to show that coal, over the last 100 years, has not been kind to the region, whether it’s through brutal union wars, environmental devastation, health effects, drug abuse, domestic abuse; all these things are tied together. Black lung. A lot of them can be put at the foot of the coal industry. To say something is a fact is to say it’s inevitable, and it’s not inevitable. LEO: How ugly will the fight between ethics and economy have to get before meaningful change can occur? ER: If we really had progressive politicians, who were willing to pass something like the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Water Act, all these things that Lyndon Johnson signed, that really would make a difference. LEO: Seems to require a kind of boldness that’s really not there. ER: Right. All the politicians are just so beholden to corporate money. You just ache for somebody who would stand up and say the right thing. I think that’s why everybody gets so excited about Barack Obama, somebody like that. It’s so rare to see it. LEO: That’s really sad. ER: It is. I was talking to somebody the other day who said, “We used to have statesmen. Now we have politicians.” When was somebody called a statesman? Henry Clay, statesman.LEO: I guess the central tension here — I’m paraphrasing your words — is perpetuating a culture of limitless economic growth using finite resources. Are we hastening our own extinction?ER: That’s what Jared Diamond has been saying for a few years now; he says it in his book “Collapse,” this idea that civilizations collapse when they’re overpopulated and they over-consume resources. Diamond points to things like denuding hillsides, ruining your water supply, creating constant mudslides, things that are actually happening in Appalachia. Of course, we don’t like to think about that as Americans. We think we’re invincible. But it’s really something that we should think about globally, this idea that we really may be at the brink. This could be Easter Island. A lot of the things Diamond says are so true, that the leaders insulate themselves so they’re not aware of what’s happening. If you read Diamond’s book, it’s almost like an allegory of the Bush administration. LEO: What role does religion play in the mountaintop removal debate? ER: It plays two roles. Historically, the role it’s played has often been, “God put the coal for us to use.” But lately there’ve been ministers like John Rouse and Stephen Peak down in the mountains who have reframed the debate in terms of stewardship. If the land is God-given, then we should be stewards of the land. There’s an evangelical group in West Virginia called “Christians for the Mountains” that just started. These are by no means hippie-loving, dreadlock-wearing folks. These are very conservative people, but they’re joining this call for stewardship. I think more mainstream ministers are. That might be the most positive thing we can look at. The reality is, the majority of this country are mainstream Protestants, and if those people can begin to understand that this is an issue of stewardship — the churches have always been a place where major social change happens. That could be very positive.LEO: In Christianity, Earth is considered a transitory place. There’s always something better waiting. ER: I think the coal industry’s always exploited that, this kind of fatalism that’s in — there are so many Baptist churches there, and they feel that way: This is a veil of tears, but you’re going to get rewarded in the next life. If you do feel that way, then you will do things that aren’t real characteristic of stewardship. A lot of people on the liberal side have said that’s why conservatives never do any environmental protection, because they think once they trash this world they’re going to get to the next world. LEO: Right. Dominionism and such. Just pure fatalism. ER: (Former Interior Secretary) James Watt, under Reagan, literally said that. LEO: Scary. One of my favorite lines is in the last paragraph: “Material gain, speed, and convenience are the most dominant forces within this country, and they have done much to crush the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic elements of our nature.” How far gone is that ideal? Can we reclaim those elements? ER: If you go to the mall and walk around, you can get pretty depressed and think we are pretty far gone. And yet if you go to parts of Appalachia that haven’t been mined, that are still pristine, you can be pretty optimistic. We’re a country that really has done more than Europe to really protect vast expanses of wilderness, and yet the flipside of that is we’re also rapacious people who tend to put consumption above just about everything else, including religion. I’m not naïve about this; it really is going to have to be a major paradigm shift, and it’s probably going to have to happen pretty quickly. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com